Monday 22 January 2018

Hard to get good advice

A friend in one of the Ministries sends me this, after reading the post on Treasury's interesting problem definition in the RIS for the ban on foreign house buyers:
A lot of the messaging at [REDACTED MINISTRY] at the time it started appearing more likely that there’d be a change of government, was about how giving Helen’s government in 1999 frank advice on the wisdom of its election promises undermined the relationship and caused distrust. So it was made fairly clear upfront that ministries were not going to be telling ministers that their policies didn’t make sense.

Thinking back, that was reported to me at a meeting as having been discussed at a senior officials meeting - interagency senior officials - at which Treasury would've been represented.
Weight it as you will.

I wish Ministries were less risk averse on this stuff and more willing to consider that their Ministers just might want to get their officials' actual views on stuff rather than pandering. And that Ministries also have a responsibility to Parliament and voters in providing accurate assessments of the likely effects of policies.

I'm sure I've seen a paper on this, likely from Ami Glazer, where an agent who's revised her views on something has incentive to preference falsify if the principal will interpret the flip as the agent's having become disloyal.

Adapting to the current scenario: if the Minister will interpret the Ministry's "Your policy will not achieve its intended effect and/or will have these bad side-effects and/or is way less effective than this other policy" advice as the Ministry not sharing the Minister's values, then the Ministry will want to dissemble when there isn't as much at stake so it won't be written off as disloyal or as providers of 'ideological burps'.

It's a fun problem though. Imagine that you're an incoming Minister, and that your Ministry expects to be punished for offering frank advice, and that you actually want frank advice.

Your Ministry is second-guessing you and trying to avoid saying anything that would make them appear disloyal on margins they think are less important, so that they might be believed if a sufficiently important issue comes up and they have to give advice contrary to what the Minister would like to believe. They, and every other Ministry, have had successions of Ministers that have claimed to want honest advice, but who've burned them for providing it. Inevitably, somebody OIAs the advice, the Minister takes flack for it in the press and in the House, and the Minister's gotten mad at the Ministry for the advice or for writing it down.

How can you credibly signal to your incredibly risk averse Ministry that you actually want frank advice? Even Stalin sometimes wanted the real deal rather than pandering.*

Can a Minister require the Chief Exec to make bets on policy outcomes?

* I really like Xavier's post on this. An excerpt:
Yet Pollock makes a good case that Stalin really wanted some genuine discussion and criticism as a way of furthering the progress of science, at least in some fields (though he underplays the connection of Stalin’s views on linguistics with his interest in strengthening national identities and making use of patriotic fervor), and goes on to make the more (speculative) claim that Stalin’s repeated assurances that science only progresses via discussion, and that it is not necessarily class-based, account at least in part for “science’s rising prestige in the post-Stalin decades”. Stalin really needed (some) science to work well in the coming competition of the Cold War, and dimly understood that this could not happen if dogmatism reigned everywhere. Yet as long as he was alive, no such discussion could take place. His influence was like that of an enormous gravitational body; once he intervened (or was even suspected of intervening), the space of discussion became completely warped.

Dogmatism was safety: one needed to know where to stand in order to get on with life. Wherever the orthodoxy was unclear, best not to tread.

1 comment:

  1. "How can you credibly signal to your incredibly risk averse Ministry that you actually want frank advice?"

    Easy: this is a repeated game so you can go about it one play at a time.

    From day 1 I demand that my officials provide two competing sets of advice on every single matter. When they meet with me I listen respectfully to both presentations and ask questions that demonstrate that I'm engaging with the issues raised in both.

    After enough iterations have occurred to build some trust, I start asking people at the meeting directly what they think.

    To maintain the social capital I've earned, I'll have to be seen occasionally accepting, or at least seriously considering, an option that was known not to be my original preference.

    It's time consuming and takes effect, yes, but so does any job done properly.